They say things “skip a generation” – often about innocuous things like having a green thumb or a passion for cooking – but I think it’s wider than that. Life is a wheel, and so is parenting.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how you’re always parenting from your own trauma. We all want to give their kids whatever we didn’t have – but the flipside of that is that we can’t pass on what we’re not conscious of.
Here’s the simple version: my nana was an amazing cook who made everything (soups, pickles, sauces and jams) herself from the vegetables and fruit my grandfather grew all over their half-acre section.
My mum, meanwhile, is a diabolical cook. Dinner in our house was usually boiled until it was grey or burned to a crisp – but we ate out a lot at actual restaurants, and our lunchboxes were always packed with hideously expensive (and hideously hideous) Eighties health foods like carob-coated rice cakes and gluten-free seed “crackers” with the texture and flavour of damp cardboard.
They both believed that food was love, but because Mum had never had packet foods and restaurant nights out, and I guess because Nana took care of all the cooking so she never felt the need to learn (no one wants to be into what their parents are into) – and maybe even because she saw how much time her mother spent making food instead of working or doing anything for herself – she showed that love by spending money on food rather than growing or making it.
And now the wheel turns back. My memories heavily feature nightly battles over tasteless dinners, and the crushing disappointment of opening my lunchbox to find nothing at all I actually wanted to eat, while all around me my friends tore open crinkly, colourful packets and crunched their way through brand-name biscuits. I love to cook. I’m an absolute nerd about nutrition, and growing and making food from scratch. And although they’re only 5 and 6, so far my boys only care about food that comes in shiny wrappers…
So now the less-simple version. I was listening to a podcast with Dr Becky Kennedy, who was talking about how your triggers with your children are often around whatever you had to learn to push down or ignore in yourself to get love as a child. Makes sense. But it made me think about the opposite, too – how we’re all trying to give our children the experiences that we didn’t have, or to heal whatever we feel was wanting in our own childhoods. But, in doing that, we can’t see whatever we did have, so we can miss out on passing on what our parents worked so hard to give us. It skips a generation, and we accidentally do the damage our parents were trying to heal in themselves as they parented us.
Here’s a concrete example, and a reason why I’m so grateful that my husband and I had different upbringings:
My parents were very typical helicopter parents. They were married a long time without children, and by the time they adopted me at 36 and had my brother at 37, they were determined that we would be and have everything. Mum’s stated goal for our childhoods was that we would be “well-rounded” – which is a noble goal, unless you have a hyper-focused, obsession-prone, socially-anxious, introvert bookworm for a child (me, hi. I’m the problem it’s me) who frankly just wanted to be left alone to read and write in her room until she was old enough for university.
I found the constant parade of extra-curricular activities and team sports and exams and performances insanely stressful. I hated nearly all of it, and “it” was a lot. A team sport every term, swimming, speech and drama, a musical instrument, sailing, ballet, tennis, Scouts – I only realised in my thirties how tense and stressed out I was basically all the time. And because I was a kid, I thought the problem was me. I felt like there was something wrong with me that needed fixing so I could be “normal”. I felt perpetually anxious, not good enough, and like I could never be myself – or even figure out who that was until well into my twenties.
Diogo is the only child of a social worker single mother. He was, and is, her pride and joy, but she always worked full time so he spent a lot of time alone in their apartment or playing with the other kids in his building. His mum worked her ass off to give him whatever he wanted, and supported him so deeply that he grew up feeling like life often had no guardrails or boundaries. When he looks back, he sees himself as spoiled and entitled and ungrateful of how hard his mum had to work to give him what he had.
He wants our boys to appreciate how privileged and lucky they are, and to have the discipline to see things through and follow the rules – and to have those rules be clear-cut and concrete so they can feel secure in where the boundaries are. I want them to feel free to be themselves, and to always make their own choices.
This is the essential paradox of our family life. You can’t see what you never had. Diogo’s mum was permissive and indulgent, so he has no experience of feeling controlled and judged, which makes it hard for him to see the long-term consequences of occasionally being too strict or inflexible. Meanwhile, I’m hyper-aware of that, but I have no experience of feeling like I have more control of my parent than I should, so I find it hard to see the long-term consequences of being a pushover or letting my kids (Nico, he’s the problem it’s him) negotiate everything with me.
(On the other hand, I believe Nico could debate anyone on the planet and crush them into dust with his absolutely insatiable energy for arguing, negotiation, bargaining and disagreement, so… life skills? We’ve taken to calling him “Do Contra”, which more or less translates as “Mr Contrary”, because there is literally nothing you could say to him that he won’t find a way to disagree with or negotiate. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: that kid will save the world or he’ll end it.)
Just something to ponder.
Something else to ponder: I was thinking about boys and girls yesterday while I was watching the boys’ swimming lessons, and wondering how much of the fact that girls perform better at basically all forms of organised learning is because organised learning is by definition not set up well for little boys.
Part of it is definitely socialisation – we still reward little girls for listening and being kind and following the rules more than boys, so they’re very quickly indoctrinated into being rewarded for people-pleasing. Which makes them more tractable and teachable, because they follow the rules better.
But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we also punish boys for being boys. This isn’t really a new idea, but it hit me hard in that moment. Nico was the last to have his turn at “frog kicking”, and his teacher had spent 4 or 5 minutes with each kid before him showing them where their legs needed to be.
So, he, a six-year-old who has never stopped moving for a second in his life (without Minecraft being involved, anyway) had to wait quietly on his own, IN A POOL, without moving or playing, for upwards of 10 minutes. Spoiler: he could not. He wasn’t disruptive or dangerous, he was just amusing himself by diving under and popping up while he waited – but his teacher made him get out and sit on the side for the rest of the class, and he missed his turn. He actually seemed to take it in stride, but I was fuming on his behalf. I don’t know if I could stay still that long in a pool!
Before Nico was born, I did a lot of reading about how there’s no difference in boys’ and girls’ brains. And I know there’s enormous variation between and among the genders, and biological sex is a spectrum, so this is all a generalisation, but also: hormones exist. Nico has never played with a doll in his life. Luca loves them. They both say pink and red are their favourite colours. But, left to their own devices, they will always decide that the best game involves jumping on and/or pummeling each other. The urge to wrestle and fight and learn by moving their bodies in violent and unpredictable ways seems to be built in.
All kids have that to a degree, but in my experience it is much stronger in most boys. And then we ask them to sit still and be quiet to learn things, and punish them when they can’t. Imagine how that compounds over a kid’s school career. In that swimming class, the girls learned the thing, and the boy both didn’t learn it, and was punished for being asked to do something his body couldn’t do. Next week, the girls will have already had the lesson, so it will be easier for them to try that kick again. Nico hasn’t, and he’ll probably be distracted by being in a pool and trying to keep his body under control, so maybe he’ll fail to learn it again. And on and on and on.
“The data show, for the first time, that gender disparities in teacher grades start early and uniformly favor girls. In every subject area, boys are represented in grade distributions below where their test scores would predict.
The authors attribute this misalignment to what they called non-cognitive skills, or “how well each child was engaged in the classroom, how often the child externalized or internalized problems, how often the child lost control and how well the child developed interpersonal skills.” They even report evidence of a grade bonus for boys with test scores and behavior like their girl counterparts.”
I don’t know what the solution is, but I’m so thankful (again and always) that my kids are in Montessori environments where they can move their bodies and learn things in their own time and way.